Saturday, March 07, 2009

Closing the Circle

I have been a photographer since my junior year in high school. I originally joined the yearbook staff (“the Olympian”) in an attempt to broaden my “extra-curricular” activities, something my mom advised me was key to getting into college. Even the Sputnik generation needed more than simply good grades to land a proper school. In the end, while the c.v. adornment was only partially successful – I was turned down at Stanford and Pomona, though, happily, accepted at Colorado College -- my experience in the Olympus High School darkroom was transformative. Watching that first print, a simple white sheet of Kodabromide paper, bathing in the developer, become a photograph of the French Club, I was mesmerized. It had an air of alchemy, mystery, magic. I was hooked, and within literally months, I would take that school owned Rolleiflex and shoot Friday night basketball pictures which I’d try and sell for five bucks to the Salt Lake Tribune. (The key was, of course, to go to games where the Trib didn’t send their own staffer!) That was forty six years ago. I find it hard to believe that my own life has spanned such an integer. Like most baby-boomers, I still “feel” about 32 or maybe 39 on a day of fatigue. Maybe it’s the fact that I have been lucky enough to make the thing I love doing the principal source of bill paying. That is, work has never really been ‘work.’ Even what we refer to as ‘crap’ assignments bring something potentially interesting or exciting. I look at those jobs as an opportunity to try out some new technique or idea. I’m not a Pollyanna: I know which jobs are crap and which aren’t, but I think I’ve figured out over the long run how to take them in stride, and yet keep my artistic juices flowing.

Sometimes I wish I’d actually had a little more historic view of our times. A way of putting my pictures into some kind of long-term flow, or context. There are folks in my business who are able to focus, literally, on very precise and targeted projects. I guess I’m sort of a photo-slut: there are very few jobs which come my way which I don’t get at least a little bit enthusiastic about. But perhaps the thing I wish I were truly better at is the long term follow-up. American Photo magazine once described me as having “been everywhere, but only for an hour.” A slight exaggeration, to be sure, but not without a ripple of truth. So many places which I worked in my early career – projects which became significant parts of my life’s work, remain unrevisited. Chile in 1973, West Africa in 1974, Eritrea in 1977, Iran in 1979. I never managed to revisit, and take a second or third look at the aftermath of those stories. Somewhere in my inner decision making secretarial pool, on a mental corkboard, I have a long list of places I’d like to return to, people – anonymous to me then and now – who I would love to meet again. I was always terrible at getting names – the pathology of not having working for a daily paper or wire servce. And yes, time is ruthless: none of us get out of here alive. And in so many of my pictures, the desire to see people again is rubbed out by the passage of people in the intervening years.

The picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, with his inner circle, having tea in Tehran just days after his return from exile is a case in point. None of the people in the room in this picture are alive any longer. I spent two months in Iran during the Revolution in 1978-79, but haven’t been able to get a visa since then, to return to the scene, now 30 years gone, of these historical events. It remains a big void in my life as historian.

Just after the coup d’etat in Chile, in 1973, I photographed a young man who had been rounded up at university, and was going to be held for months before being released. His life changed that day, and so did mine. The picture ran in many places, and helped bring the face of the Chile coup to viewers, especially in Europe. Yet only a couple of years ago, when a Santiago newspaper ran a story asking “Who is this man?” did we finally find out who he was. Part of me didn’t want to know the answer to that question, fearful that he had been killed as so many were. But within days, friends of his contacted the paper and said that is “Daniel Cespedes --- the man in the picture.” An article with that title ran in the paper, and thirty years later, we learned that he had survived his ordeal was living south of the capital. I still haven’t been to Chile since then, a desire I keep sublimating to other more current demands.

But as this is one of the rare times when an unknown subject becomes known, I feel I need to close that circle. In fact, once Daniel was discovered, it made me ponder the idea that perhaps it would be possible to find some of the many people who unwittingly became subjects of my pictures at some random moment in time.


The mother and child in the Cambodian refugee camp, the loving mom at the Ethiopian camp.
Even a grunt helping fix a tank at Lang Vei, ca. 1971.

All of them make me feel there ought to be some way, unlikely though it sounds, of catching up with these people twenty or thirty years later.

Last Monday night, I closed one of those circles.

In the summer of 1972 I was still living in Vietnam. I was freelancing in what might have been referred to as the good ole days. Many magazines, not so many photographers, and if you found an editor who liked you, there were lots of possibilities for work. One day I took an assignment with the New York Times, to travel with their reporter, Fox Butterfield, and see what the action was up Route 1 towards Tay Ninh, just north of Saigon. It was following the spring of the North Vietnamese “Easter Offensive” and they were maintaining pressure on a number of vital places through out the country. Tay Ninh, a mere hour or so from Saigon, and supplied through Cambodia, remained one of those areas. Firefights and small skirmishes happened on a regular basis all summer. Fox and I headed north on Rt. 1, and late morning found ourselves in a small village still smoldering with the effects of the battle of the night before. This was long before the days of cell phones and Blackberrys, so there were no obvious ways of finding out what was happening other than to make a few phone calls to a military information desk, which was occasionally helpful, and just get in your car and drive. In the early afternoon we headed further north, shortly coming across a group of our colleagues massed on the edge of a small village. Trang Bang. There were all the audio accompaniments -- the sounds of battle: rifle fire, the explosion of RPGs and grenades, and the occasional ‘whump’ of a mortar. We were on a small road about a quarter mile from the village, waiting to see how the battle – between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese troops, would play out. I was working with a slightly different mix of cameras that day. In an attempt, I suppose to take myself more seriously (don’t read all those photo magazines, people!) I had taken my two Leicas. I owned two very used cameras, in addition to my Nikomats. A wonderful M2 which I still use, and a Model III (about 1946) – a knob wind, screw mount of the early variety which, while capable of taking good pictures if you had a sharp lens on it, was prone to quirky loading and film-transport problems. But I know that in my mind, I was thinking “today I will be Cartier-Bresson.” Of course when the real photographic moments arrive, trying to “be” anyone else is always problematic. You need to just take your own photographs, in your own way.







We had been lingering on the edge of battle in this small village when a droning noise came out of the distance. Two A-1 Skyraider planes, with Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) markings started circling Trang Bang. After a couple of passes they began diving towards the village. I had finished the first roll of film in my Leica III, and had started to reload. The planes came in, lumbering along as they do, and dropped big canisters of napalm. Moments later there was a fiery explosion, and a large fireball erupted on the edge of the village near a pagoda, followed by billows of dark smoke. I was still struggling to slide the Tri-x into my Leica, with one eye watching the planes and one on the camera. The planes made a couple of passes, the film still resisting to go into that narrow loading slot on the Leica. Then, all of a sudden everything changed.

At the end of the road, we could see some kind of movement coming out from the smoke. It looked like a small group of people, who reached the road, then turned and started running towards us. To my left, Nick Ut, the AP photographer, and Alex Shimkin, a tall, lanky Newsweek stringer both understood what had happened, and immediately began running down the road towards the village, and the oncoming villagers. Within a few seconds, I got my camera loaded, the back closed, and started down the road myself. By then, the moment had passed. That picture which became the iconic image of the war was in Nick Ut’s camera. The crying children, running from the flames, had made it to where the cameramen were, and for a moment were waiting, wondering what to do next. The little girl in the picture, who had torn off her burning clothes, was having a canteen of water poured on her burns in an attempt to cool them off. Then a few seconds later, the children began running again, up the road to where the press vehicles were parked. That moment was over, literally in a moment. There was no lingering. It was the horror of life, happening. Within another minute or so, out of the distant smoky mist came a man carrying a woman on his back, and a minute after that, an auntie carrying the lifeless body of a burned baby. It was, in fact, a scene which had played out hundreds of times in Vietnam over the preceding decade, innocent villagers caught up in one sort of crossfire, or another.

Within a few minutes, Nick guided the burned children into his car, and headed to the hospital where he made sure they would be looked after. Then he headed to the AP where I was on my way, all of us to process our film. AP was the basic lifeline for daily press who were working in Saigon. If you needed films processed, prints made, and images to be sent over the wire to New York, AP was the hub. I’d dropped my films off, and was waiting to see what I had. I will never forget the moment when Nick came out of the darkroom, holding that picture for the first time, a wet 5x7” print, in his hands. Ours were the first eyes to see it. That summer Horst Faas, the two time Pulitzer winner who had spent years in Vietnam, was back and in charge of the picture side of the bureau. Well, even if he weren’t technically the chief of the picture side, wherever Horst went, he was in charge. There was a transcendent moment. Horst, a big rugby player of a European, and Nick Ut, a slight, unassuming Vietnamese, coming together again at a focal point of history. We all looked at Nick’s picture. “Well,” I thought, “that is way better than anything I have.” Horst paused a minute, and said in his most authoritative Germanic accent, “You do good work today, Nick Ut.” It was a profound compliment. Discussions ensued for sometime about whether the picture could be put on the wire since it involved “nudity” though clearly no rule ever written had this picture in mind. And in a matter of 24 hours, the photograph went from being viewed by our dozen eyes in the AP office, to tens of millions around the world.

But, what of the children. The girl, Kim Phuc, spent months in rehab, before finally getting to return to her village. She received medical help along the way, including from foreign medical teams in Vietnam, and eventually, as she came into adulthood, traveled to Cuba for study. Once there, she met and married another Vietnamese student, and a couple of years later they defected to Canada, where they live today. She has a foundation, the “Kim Phuc” foundation which is dedicated to helping child victims of war get the help they need. Finally, the other night, I got to see her again after nearly 37 years. German television, who it must be said, remains unafraid to spend money to create great work, had assembled a crew in Washington, and arranged for Nick and Kim Phuc to come to town for an interview. I, as someone who happened to be on Route 1 that day, was interviewed as well. And Monday night we all met again in Georgetown. With a small light illuminating us from the tv camera, we walked in the Washington chill across M street for half an hour, speaking of that day, of the times since, Kim’s children, and how we felt about the reunion. I’ve seen Nick a number of times over the years, but to walk, the three of us, and try and bridge all those years was very satisfying. I wanted to make a picture of Kim Phuc and Nick. I’d hoped to do it earlier in the day, in the beautiful light of a fading afternoon, but their planes were late, and we ended up shooting in the hotel cafeteria. It wasn’t a ‘crap’ assignment. But trying to make a picture which holds those 37 years together is not easy. Not as satisfying, perhaps, as simply knowing we are all alive and able to embrace.
cr: Hyungwon Kang
Kim Phuc radiates a kind of warmth and understanding which can only come from pain. But she has risen above her pain, and now tries to counsel others on theirs. Simply by example. The world has moved on. Ten years ago I returned one afternoon to Trang Bang while on a trip to Vietnam. But, having been drawn there, I didn’t know what I thought I would find, or even what I was looking for. Here, where the bombs had fallen and children run in fear, lay a bucolic countryside. Serenely beautiful Vietnamese school girls, their ao-dai dresses fluttering in the wind drove by in what seemed like slow motion on their motorbikes. Three wheeled trucks carrying produce buzzed like yellow jackets on the highway. In the distance the quiet of the village, and its pagoda seemed to have forgotten what happened on that June day in 1972. And maybe for a moment that was all right. Spending that evening with Nick and Kim was a little step to helping me close that circle. We’re just sayin’..David
(as always, click on an image to see it full size)
Just got the film back (it does take longer than digital...)

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was there in 1970, north of where you were - in the Central Highlands near Tuy Hoa. It truly is a beautiful country but all I can remember is smoke and dirt and bombs and bullets. I would like to think it is a peaceful place now but know the history of violence both before and after our time there. I sure didn't do anything to make it better. Maybe you and your friends did.
Reeder

JRT in Seattle said...

Your account of this harrowing period in VietNam was dramatic, poignant, powerfully moving. I remember the specific photo of the young Vietnamese girl when it was first published in the early '70s. The experience of meeting again with Kim Phuc and Nick Ut must have been one of the more remarkable moments of your career and of your life. The circle rounds up on itself. Bravo.

bobpet said...

David, terrific piece!!

and what you said: "Sometimes I wish I’d actually had a little more historic view of our times. A way of putting my pictures into some kind of long-term flow, or context." is something I'vde been feeling for years. I just don't have that historic reality.

best

Bob Peterson - Seattle

Stevie Wonders said...

Really beautiful story. Having been born in 1970, I was somehow spared the immediate horror of the Vietnam war, but of course that photo is etched forever in my mind.

I'm close to tears at seeing the photo of your reunion with Kim Phuc and Nick Ut.

Fascinating to hear a fellow photographers perspective on that tragic day.

We are observers, yes, but we are also human. Difficult dance, isn't it?

luke said...

Thank you very much for sharing your memories about those days and the iconic photographs.

manuello said...

When God wrote SURVIVOR he was thinking of Kim Phuc.

Beautiful images and beautiful writing. Again Burnett you nailed.

Glad that you, Nick and Kim were able to hang out in a cheerful and peaceful moment after so many yrs without the sounds of machine guns and military airplanes dropping WMD.

TO all those young photographers, this is what photography is all about. Forget Hollywood and who is the most beautiful actor/singer at the moment and instead study Burnett's work and you will learn plenty of things.

Manuello Paganelli
www.ManuelloPaganelli.com

Iris and David said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments: I remember my sophomore year of college, standing on the sidelines of that football powerhouse, Colorado College, watching my fraternity brother, Cy Dyer, run 40 yards for a touchdown. I was shooting on the sidelines with my 400 Tele-Meyer and a Spotmatic Pentax, but mostly I was jumping up and down, and yelling and cheering. Stan Payne, the sour-faced old pro shooting for the Gazette-Telegraph (with three Leica M bodies!) looked at me with disdain and said "You need to learn to be more dispassionate." Coming as it did from a sour puss, I wasn't sure it was an opinion I needed to heed. But as years have passed, I think I have tried to figure out how to walk that fine line between over-excitement and restrained enthusiasm. It is part of that difficult dance. Nick Ut hesitated for not a second: he made his picture, and then sheparded the children to his car, dropped them at the hospital on the way to the AP, and reminded the doctors not to practice "triage": that they should be sure and care for these children. But sometimes that can be a tough dance, indeed. But, at the very least, you need to keep your feet moving. David B

BKYoung said...

You may have been "everywhere for a minute", but it was the RIGHT minute. Isn't that what news photography is all about?

I am in awe (as I have frequently been -- an easier position to be in when I was younger) that you were THERE, THEN.

And your awareness of its place in the flow of history, and awareness of the priorities Nick Ut showed (and I have no doubt you have shown), demonstrates more than enough. No need to fear a lack of history...

Peripheral Type said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peripheral Type said...

David, great that you talked about this. Sometimes our profession has a little too much bravado and faux empathy. It was real and you got into some areas rarely discussed. DButow

Allan johnston said...

Sometime you have to be like a turtle to make it happen, you have to stick your neck out. Nice work, Real work.

www.allanjohnston.co.nz

bob said...

David, This is a masterpiece! The Ayatollah Khomeini image is still a classic.

cheers,

Granville Withers

Anonymous said...

What's amazing about Kim is the fact that she lived, grew into a beautiful and thoughtful woman, moved to Canada, and was found by a friend of the photographer who caught her in peril, in the deadliest moments of her life, a second in time in which she could have ceased to exist; that her life went on, blossomed, and had meaning beyond (far beyond) that wonderful and harrowing photograph so long ago; and that her face now radiates such beauty. What's not captured in these photos, is somehow captured, somehow not. Is, I'm just sayin', the beauty, even though horrific; the life, even though hanging by a naked thread....thanks for capturing both ends of that. There's a photographic string-theory there somewhere, of a fifth and other dimensions captured in an image. Is poetry.
Sparky

Anonymous said...

One of the most meaningful, well written and moving posts I've ever read. Bravo and thank you!

Vern said...

Interesting I found this recent blog as I've been reading
"The Girl in the Picture" which is the book about Kim Phuc. Very sad story. I still remember when the pic was on the front page of the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1972. I was 9 years old at the time. Same age as Kim. We are planning our first visit to Vietnam this fall.

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